Posts Tagged ‘Pharaoh’


Delivering his first State of the Union address, Donald Trump stuck to his script. Although often wandering from the truth, he saluted an improved economy and painted a rosy picture of his presidency and the future. Beware! The real state of the union is far gloomier.

Trump’s speech featured heavy doses of self-congratulation. It also engaged in shameless pandering with guests sobbing on camera as Trump told stories of violent crimes committed against their families. Still, seventy-five percent of people who heard the address approved. But Trump did no more than present a Potemkin Village.

A more accurate portrait of this presidency emerges from the ongoing lies, attacks on American intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and inability to deal straightforwardly with Congressional leaders—of both parties.

In terms of breaking news, Trump continues trying to thwart the Mueller commission’s investigation into his connections to Russia. This morning, Devin Nunes (R-Cal.), chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, released a memo written by his staff casting a negative light on the FBI. Bureau director Christopher Wray—chosen by Trump to replace the fired James Comey—had condemned releasing the memo, as did leading members of Congress, intelligence experts and journalists. They believe the memo to be out of context and distorted. They fear it will reveal Bureau sources and methods, putting American intelligence operatives at risk. Trump permitted its release.

Back to the State of the Union and something you may have missed. Trump concluded by calling for Americans to maintain “trust in our God.” Our God? Do all Americans believe in the same God? If they believe in God at all?

Given Trump’s support by ecumenical Christians, I assume he referred to Jesus. I’m a Jew. Jesus isn’t my God—or the God of American Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and others. “Our God” is not the God of Israel, Saudi Arabia, India and Japan. Vladimir Putin promotes Russia, despite its large Muslim population, as a Christian (Orthodox) nation, but referencing “our God” can only heighten tensions with China, Iran and North Korea. Will our God battle their Gods?

The comment served to send a clear message to the Trump base: that America remains a white, Christian nation. That, re Charlottesville, Virginia, “good people” can march alongside white supremacists and neo-Nazis. That immigrants from Haiti and Africa really do come from “shithole” countries.

For Trump, the State of the Union was all about money—with no acknowledgment of Barack Obama’s role in moving the economy forward. Economic growth is good. Mammon is not.

This week’s Torah portion, Yitro (Jethro), presents the Ten Commandments. The commentary Etz Chayim examines the (Jewish) First Commandment, “I am the Lord your God who brought out of the land of Egypt.” Egypt, a nation of great wealth, was the house of culture, science and mathematics. All good. But for Israel, it was the house of bondage. The scholar Benno Jacob (1862–1945) comments, “If freedom and culture cannot coexist, we should bid farewell to culture for the sake of freedom.” Money cannot be “our God”.

Trump continues to widen American divisions. No matter how strong the economy, bigotry and hatred—espoused and supported by the president of the United States—can only turn America into Pharaoh’s Egypt. And we know how that story turned out.

As I publish, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average has plummeted over 800 points since last Friday. Will Mr. Trump, as the force behind the American economy, accept responsibility for this?

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Last Saturday, I led Torah Study at Congregation Sherith Israel. We read Vayelech—which means and (Moses) went. This short portion presents the prophet’s last address—one more warning to forswear false gods—before the Israelites cross the Jordan River into Canaan. He is 120. He is about to die. He will be left behind. I wondered how he felt.

Moses childhood no doubt was confusing. Born into a despised Hebrew family—Pharaoh has ordered all Israelite male babies to be put to death at birth—he’s raised in court by Pharaoh’s daughter. But he remains a Hebrew at heart. As a young man, he sees an Egyptian taskmaster beat an Israelite. He hits and kills the Egyptian. Someone sees him. Moses flees east to Midian and becomes a self-professed stranger in a strange land.

God has plans for Moses. Moses isn’t interested. At the burning bush Moses asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11). He has, he says, a speech problem. Still, Moses makes a speech Fidel Castro in length that fills the Book of Deuteronomy forty years after the Exodus. It is Moses who, with help from his brother Aaron, brought Egypt to its knees and has kept the fractious Israelites together in the wilderness. Yet Moses is a watchword for humility. “Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth” (Numbers 12:3).

He’s great. He’s humble. Oh, he’s also irascible. While Moses is atop Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, the Israelites demand that Aaron make a visible “god” for them. Aaron produces a golden calf. When Moses comes down, he’s furious. “He took the calf that they had made and burned it; he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it” (Exod. 32:20).

Problems with anger management? Moses is only human. Exodus 11:3 refers to him as “Ha ish Moshe”—the man Moses. When the Israelites thirst for water in the wilderness, Moses blows it. Rather than speaking to a rock to draw water as God commands, Moses strikes the rock with his staff (Numbers 20:11). Yes, water flows. But God punishes Moses severely. He will never be able to enter the Promised Land.

So here we encounter Moses on what appears to be his last day. He finally seems resigned to his fate. He’s just passed leadership on to Joshua. He’s about to give Israel a song of faith and a blessing that will outline the future. Then he’ll see Canaan from Mount Nebo before being gathered to his ancestors. So what is he thinking?

I hope Moses has measured his life carefully and has a sense of perspective. That while he recognizes his failures—it seems he didn’t circumcise his younger son Eliezer (Exodus 4:24–26) as required by Israelite law—he appreciates what he’s accomplished.

We are all frail. I’d like to believe that Moses’ last thoughts tip the scales in his favor. Jews long have revered him as Moshe rabbeinu—Moses our teacher. More than three millennia removed, Moses’ life informs us that people with common weaknesses and failings may do uncommon things. May we see this possibility in ourselves.

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Nelson Mandela’s funeral is several weeks behind us. As it happens, now is a good time to consider how Mandela’s philosophy of looking forward finds antecedents in the Talmud and the Book of Proverbs.

Mandela’s greatness was in thinking that while great wrongs had been done to black South Africans, hatred and recrimination serve no good purpose. The new South African society must look to the future without calls for revenge masquerading as justice.

A man who spends 27 years in prison and rejects hatred of his jailers is worth listening to. I hope that both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have reflected on this. The ancients certainly did.

This week’s Torah portion Be-Shallach (Sent Out), Exodus 13:17–17:16, presents Pharaoh undergoing yet another change of heart. After releasing the Israelites from bondage following the ten plagues, he and his army chase the Israelites into the Reed Sea (Red Sea is an improper translation of Yam Suf). The sea splits. The Israelites pass through. The pursuing Egyptians drown.

Should Jews—should anyone—treasure revenge? The Talmud (Sanhedrin 39b) relates: “In that hour the ministering angels wished to utter the song [of praise] before the Holy One, blessed be He, but He rebuked them, saying: My handiwork [the Egyptians] is drowning in the sea; would ye utter song before me!”

Proverbs 24:17–18 offers related instruction: “If your enemy falls, do not exult; / If he trips let your heart not rejoice, / Lest the Lord see it and be displeased, / And avert His wrath from him.”

Yes, attacks should be repulsed and crimes punished. But we must take a broader view regarding those who offend and those who are offended. God may have found it necessary to slay the Egyptians and assist the Israelites to win many military victories, but this does not make those deeds pleasing. Delighting in destruction pushes us across the boundary between self-defense and cruelty. All humans are God’s handiwork.

Do we get that? And can it lead to peace in 2014? Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian situation, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry still believes that a framework for a two-state agreement can be reached by April. I’m skeptical, but I hope to be proven wrong. And I could be if Palestinians and Israelis emulate Mandela.

Jodi Rudoren wrote in The New York Times (1-2-14) regarding Israel’s demand to be recognized as a Jewish state, “The gulf between the two sides on the issue highlights a broader question critical to the outcome of the talks: whether a peace deal must reconcile conflicting versions of the past, or whether it can allow each version some legitimacy and focus on paving a path forward.”

I’m not addressing the issue of a Jewish state here. De facto, that’s what Israel is. But making room for others’ histories—on both sides—can bring peace closer.

The philosopher George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I add a corollary: Those who dwell solely on the past also are condemned to repeat it.

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Read the first three chapters of my new novel, The Boy Walker, at Order in soft cover or e-book at, or And read my short-short story “White on White” in the Winter 2014 online edition of Summerset Review.


Pharaoh never gets it. Even hail, locusts and darkness fail to move him to let the Israelites leave Egypt. It takes a tenth plague, the death of the firstborn males—his own son included—to prompt Pharaoh to recognize his wrongdoing. Which brings me to Lance Armstrong.

How interesting that Armstrong’s long-awaited “confession” to Oprah Winfrey regarding performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) came during the week in which we read the Torah portion Bo (Come). For years, Armstrong denied doping accusations. The stronger the evidence grew, the greater his denials—and attacks against his accusers. According to media reports, he allegedly bribed cycling agencies and threatened teammates and others who spoke out.

For his part, Pharaoh eventually seems to get the point and relents to a greater power. He releases all the Israelites along with their herds and flocks to worship God in the wilderness.

Perhaps Lance Armstrong finally recognized the scope of his wrongdoing—he flat-out cheated then lied. Perhaps he could no longer live with his conscience. I won’t deny him that possibility. Or perhaps he can no longer tolerate his lifetime ban from cycling and triathlon, and believes a confession enough for reinstatement—although officials want him to admit his guilt under oath before considering his case. True, there’s a difference between being king of an empire and king of the cycling world. Regardless, Armstrong may share a great deal with Pharaoh.

As we learn, Pharaoh’s change of heart leaves much to be desired. Even before Moses returns to Egypt, God says, “Yet I know that the king of Egypt will let you go only because of a greater might” (Exod. 3:19). God gets Pharaoh. In Egypt, God informs Moses, “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 7:3). Is Pharaoh fated to do evil? The biblical text reveals that Pharaoh hardened his own heart after each of the first five plagues. Only after the sixth plague did God harden Pharaoh’s heart. According to Maimonides and others, Pharaoh ultimately forfeited his right to repent.

And after that dreadful tenth plague? Next week’s portion (BeShellach—In Sending) shows Pharaoh undergoing yet another change of heart. He harnesses his chariot and leads six hundred wheeled terrors in pursuit of his former slaves. The Egyptian army follows the Israelites right into the Reed Sea—and drowns.

So which stage along the continuum does Lance Armstrong occupy? Has he genuinely repented? Or does he fear a cascade of legal actions—from monetary to potential prison time? Many people in the spotlight get caught violating trust and the law. Mea culpas are easy to mouth but not always believable.

The lure of success and power can warp anyone’s judgment. We can choose to start down the slippery slope and take our chances. Or we can draw a line based on moral and ethical principles.

If we undertake the former—if we harm others of our own volition—and are discovered, the least we can do is not only acknowledge our guilt but also accept the consequences.

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Read the first three chapters of David’s new novel, SAN CAFÉ at SAN CAFÉ is available at, and

Also, read “What We Wish for Our Children”—Part 1 and Part 2—on the blog pages of


I should have posted this last week when we began reading the Book of Exodus—Sh’mot (Names) in Hebrew. But I needed time to mull over the first two chapters. Names play a big role. Yet the Torah seemed to display a strange oversight.

Exodus begins by naming the sons of Israel (Jacob), who come down to Egypt under the protection offered by their brother Joseph. We know of Reuben, Simeon, Levi and the rest. We also know what their names mean since Genesis (B’reishit) tells us why their mothers named them as they did (aside from Jacob naming Benjamin). When we meet the first patriarch, Abraham, he already has a name—Abram—but God changes it to indicate that he will be the father of a great nation. Isaac, and before him Ishmael, also receive meaningful names. So does Jacob and his twin, Esau.

In the ancient Near East, knowing the name of a human or a god gave a person a degree of power over that being. Thus names often are guarded. In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles all night with a “man”/angel before reuniting with Esau. As sunrise nears, the angel renames Jacob Israel—one who strives or wrestles with God. But when Israel asks his opponent’s name, God’s messenger responds, “You must not ask my name!” (Gen 32:30).

Moses, too, makes inquiry of the Divine. At the Burning Bush, he asks God’s name because the Israelites in bondage in Egypt will want to know Who is sending Moses to them. God answers, but cryptically: “Eyeh-Asher-Eyheh”—“I am What I Am” or “I Will Be What I Will Be” (Exod. 3:14). Later, God reveals God’s ineffable name—YHVH—not pronounced by Jews, who instead say Adonai (Lord) or, in more observant circles, HaShem (The Name).

There’s the background. Now for the question: Guess who doesn’t have a name? Moses! Pharaoh’s daughter gives him that name (Moshe in Hebrew) when she has the three-month-old boy floating in a small ark drawn out of the Nile. Yet the biblical narrative never tells us “Moses’” birth name. Amram and Jocheved are his parents. Aaron is his brother and Miriam his sister. Moses’ original name remains a mystery.

The Midrash—stories seeking to fill gaps in the biblical narrative—yields many names for Moses. Leviticus Rabbah gives Moses seven names, other sources ten, including Yered (descent), Avigdor (master of the fence) and Chever (companion or connector). But all this is speculative.

Why does the biblical text tell us nothing? Perhaps Torah seeks to emphasize Moses’ deeds as an adult. Or perhaps the name Moses represents an irony too strong to be diluted. As Pharaoh’s daughter has a servant draw him out of the river, so the elder Moses draws the Israelites out from Egypt. Moreover, the Egyptian army drowns in the Reed Sea—payback for the previous Pharaoh’s order: “Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile…” (Exod. 1:22).

Moses’ name, like his burial place, is unknown. We have his words. We have his deeds. Still, Moses forever remains a mystery beyond our reach.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of David’s new novel, SAN CAFÉ at SAN CAFÉ is available at, and

Also, read “What We Wish for Our Children”—Part 1 and Part 2—on the blog pages of